Ethical and philosophical issues have long occupied biotechnology, where institutional review boards commonly rule on proposed experiments and advisory committees must approve the use of gene-splicing and related techniques. When the federal government initiated its effort to decipher the human genome, a percentage of the budget went to consideration of ethics issues like genetic discrimination.
But such questions are relatively new for scientists and engineers in other fields. Some are calling for the same kind of discussion that microbiologists organized in 1975 when the immense power of their emerging knowledge of gene-splicing or recombinant DNA began to dawn on them. The meeting, at the Asilomar conference center in California, gave rise to an ethical framework that still prevails in biotechnology.
“Something like Asilomar might be very important,” said Andrew Light, director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University, one of the organizers of a conference in Charlotte, N.C., in April on the ethics of emerging technologies. “The question now is how best to begin that discussion among the scientists, to encourage them to do something like this, then figure out what would be the right mechanism, who would fund it, what form would recommendations take, all those details.”
But an engineering Asilomar might be hard to bring off. “So many people have their nose to the bench,” Dr. Arkin said, “historically a pitfall of many scientists.” Anyway, said Paul Thompson, a philosopher at Michigan State and former secretary of the International Society for Environmental Ethics, many scientists were trained to limit themselves to questions answerable in the real world, in the belief that “scientists and engineers should not be involved in these kinds of ethical questions.”